Quantcast
Insights

What Role Can Biofuels Play in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

The shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is occurring mainly at the power plant level. But what about transportation? Can we significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by switching to cleaner fuels? Or is this just an attempt to keep 20th century technology chugging along while trading one set of environmental problems for another?


Biofuels aren't new and they aren't used solely for transportation. Power plants can burn wood, for example and many of the first autos, including Ford's Model T, ran on ethanol or peanut oil. But they're now seen as an alternative to fossil fuels for transportation.

Biofuels can play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially for applications like long-haul trucking and possibly air travel.

Biofuels offer several advantages over fossil fuels. Most are less toxic. Crops used to produce them can be grown quickly, so unlike coal, oil and gas that take millions of years to form, they're considered renewable. They can also be grown almost anywhere, reducing the need for infrastructure like pipelines and oil tankers and, in many areas, conflicts around scarcity and political upheaval.

The main biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel. Biomass like wood can also be burned directly for fuel, although that usually produces more greenhouse gas emissions to produce the same amount of energy as burning fossil fuels. Biofuel greenhouse gas emissions are offset to a great extent because plants absorb and store carbon dioxide while they're growing and sometimes in roots left in the ground, so CO2 emissions are roughly equal to or less than what the crops store.

Despite the advantages, numerous problems have led many to question whether biofuels are a green alternative. Andrew Steer and Craig Hanson of the World Resources Institute noted in the Guardian that biofuel has three major strikes against it: "It uses land needed for food production and carbon storage, it requires large areas to generate just a small amount of fuel and it won't typically cut greenhouse gas emissions."

Producing biofuel with crops like corn often requires converting land from food to fuel production or destroying natural ecosystems that provide valuable services, including carbon sequestration. Crops also require fertilizers, pesticides and large amounts of water, as well as machinery for planting, growing, harvesting, transporting and processing. If forests are cleared for fuel crops and if the entire lifecycle of the fuels is taken into account, biofuels don't always reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. Palm oil, used for biodiesel, is especially bad, because valuable carbon sinks like peat bogs and rain forests are often destroyed to grow palms.

Using better farming methods and more efficient feedstocks and growing fuel crops on land that isn't good for growing food can reduce land use and climate impacts. For example, fast-growing grasses, agricultural and forest-industry wastes and even household wastes can be used rather than crops like corn that are normally considered food. Some feedstocks are more efficient at producing energy than others. Ethanol from canola and sugarcane is better than from corn, as it delivers more energy compared to what's required to produce the fuel.

Cellulosic materials, including switchgrass and agricultural and forestry wastes, are even more efficient than sugar- and starch-based fuel stocks. They produce fewer greenhouse gases and don't normally displace food crops, but the process of converting cellulose to ethanol is more difficult than turning starch and sugars from corn or sugarcane to fuel. Some studies show switchgrass ethanol can produce 540 percent more energy than that required to produce the fuel, compared to just 25 percent more for corn-based ethanol. Experimental biofuels made from biomass like algae, as well as genetically synthesized organisms, show a great deal of promise, as they're efficient and can be produced without large land bases.

Biofuels can play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially for applications like long-haul trucking and possibly air travel. Biodiesel and gasoline mixed with ethanol are already widely available. Research into new types of biofuels is also important, but the massive amounts of land, biomass and water required to produce conventional biofuels mean they aren't a panacea. We can get further in transportation by focusing on fuel efficiency and conservation, increased public transit and other alternatives to private automobiles and shifting to electric vehicles, especially as clean electricity sources become more widely available.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
GMO
Activists campaigning to regulate glyphosate in the European Union. Avaaz / Flickr

Monsanto 'Commands' Civic Group to Turn in All Communications Over Glyphosate

Avaaz, a civic campaigning network that counts roughly 45 million subscribers around the world, has been served with a 168-page subpoena on behalf of agribusiness giant Monsanto.

The document, dated Jan. 26 and sent from New York Supreme Court, "commands" the U.S.-based organization to turn in a decade's worth of internal communications by Friday, Feb. 23.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Radiation area from Horseshoe Mesa uranium mine tailings at Grand Canyon's South Rim. Al_HikesAZ / Flickr

Uranium Mining's Toxic Legacy: Why the U.S. Risks Repeating Mistakes

By Stephanie Malin

Uranium—the raw material for nuclear power and nuclear weapons—is having a moment in the spotlight.

Companies such as Energy Fuels, Inc. have played well-publicized roles in lobbying the Trump administration to reduce federal protection for public lands with uranium deposits. The Defense Department's Nuclear Posture Review calls for new weapons production to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which could spur new domestic uranium mining. And the Interior Department is advocating more domestic uranium production, along with other materials identified as "critical minerals."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
The Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles. Simisa / Wikimedia Commons

Seychelles Creates Groundbreaking Marine Reserve With Help From Leonardo DiCaprio

The Seychelles has created two vast new marine protected areas in the Indian Ocean after a groundbreaking finance deal brokered by the Nature Conservancy and other stakeholders, including environmentalist and Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio.

In exchange for writing off a portion of its debt, the island nation agreed to protect a total of 81,000-square-miles of ocean—that's about the size of Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less
President Trump and French President Macron review troops during the Bastille Day parade last July.

There Are Better Things in France for Trump to Emulate Than a Military Parade

By Elliott Negin

President Trump was so impressed by the military parade he saw in Paris on Bastille Day last July that he ordered the Pentagon to plan a bigger one for Washington, DC.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Bears Ears National Monument. Gannon McGhee / Flickr

Rare Fossils Discovered on Lands Cut From Bears Ears National Monument

Researchers, led by paleontologist Rob Gay, have discovered what may be one of the world's richest caches of Triassic period fossils at an extensive site within the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. The team's initial excavation led to the extraordinary discovery of several intact remains of crocodile-like animals called phytosaurs. The findings were publicly announced at this week's Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists (WAVP) annual conference where researchers warned of a growing threat to their work in the region.

Keep reading... Show less
Renewable Energy
GE Renewable Energy

Nation's Largest Wind Farm Coming to Oklahoma

The Wind Catcher Energy Connection project, which includes a massive 800-turbine wind farm under construction in the Oklahoma panhandle, is getting closer to lift-off.

Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO), a subsidiary of major utility American Electric Power, announced this week a settlement with various parties, including Walmart, allowing the $4.5 billion project to move forward.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
Marine litter on a remote stretch of coastline in Rekvik, Norway. Bo Eide / Flickr

Plastic Threatens to Swamp the Planet

By Paul Brown

A ubiquitous tide of plastic particles has now swept throughout the world's oceans.

The human rights activist Bianca Jagger described to a conference in London Tuesday how a substance that was invented only in 1907 and seemed to have almost magical properties, because it was practically indestructible, is now threatening an environmental catastrophe.

Keep reading... Show less

Beachgoers Use Endangered Shark Dragged From Water for Selfies

By Zachary Toliver

Sometimes humans forget that animals have feelings, too, and cause them to suffer. Just consider some Florida beachgoers who were filmed taking photos of and selfies with an injured hammerhead shark, who an expert says most likely died after the incident.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!